I’ve recently reviewed The New Pornographers fine new release In The Morse Code Of Brake Lights (at tinyurl.com/zubpornos). The Vancouver, Canada ‘supergroup’ featuring the songwriting of Carl Newman is one of (if not the) best pop bands of our era. I own all eight of their LP’s and this is the third tour in a row I have seen. They are a big band with a lot of moving parts, featuring Carl Newman on vocals and guitar, the superb Neko Case on vocals, Kathryn Calder on keyboards and vocals, toque wearing (totally Canadian) bassist John Collins, keyboardist and Ken Norton lookalike Blaine Thurber, Todd Fancey on the Explorer guitar copy and baseball cap, with Joe Seiders on drums and vocals and new singer/violinist Simi Stone. Mad Uncle Dan Bejar is not touring with the band this time, as he is busy with his own band Destroyer.
The Haw River Ballroom is a beautiful venue in the middle of nowhere, in Saxapahaw, NC. It’s in an old, redone textile mill. There’s not much seating but it’s a great room with good sight lines and great sound. The band started up with ‘Falling Down The Stairs Of Your Smile’ from Morse Code, answering the question I had about the tricky bass line, which indeed is played by the fantastic John Collins. This was followed by ‘Sing Me Spanish Techno’ from Twin Cinema, ‘You’ll Need A Backseat Driver’ from Morse Code, and the amazing ‘Dancehall Domine’ from Brill Bruisers. The Pornos really, really make the most of their singing chops, with Newman joined by Case, Calder, Stone and drummer Seiders on almost every song. I was getting a late 60’s vibe from their singing arrangements, hearing Beach Boys and the Mamas and Papas elements as well as some classic girl group backings. ‘Crash Years’ from Together was a welcome surprise, and a great showcase for Neko Case. Her voice is a true force of nature and Newman did well to feature her early and often during the set.
The middle of the set featured one of their finest tunes, ‘My Rights Versus Yours’ from Challengers. This delicate song was brilliantly handled by Newman’s vocal and the restrained backing. It was one of the highlights of the evening. Follow up was ‘The Laws Have Changed’ from Electric Version, a revved up rocker with a little bit of early Elvis Costello and the Attractions in its DNA. The twenty-six songs the New Pornographers played included eight from Morse Code, and songs from all eight of their LP’s. It was a truly fantastic set. They are the kind of band, as I said before, with a lot of moving parts. There is not a lot of individual instrumental virtuosity, Collins’ bass being the standout with Seiders drumming. The keys and guitars all lock in to create the fantastic pop confections of the band, and the real standout is the singing. One surprise was ‘Testament To Youth In Verse,’ a Dan Bejar song that Carl sang from Electric Version. When they got to the “no no no no no no” coda it was truly mind blowing. The middle of the set ended with a terrific version of ‘All The Old Showstoppers’ from Challengers, packed full of Seiders’ drum fills and Neko vocals.
The beginning of the end third of the set did drag a bit, but they finished up with Neko killing it on ‘Mass Romantic’ from their first LP. The encores included a somber ‘Challengers,’ then ‘Moves’ and ‘Brill Bruisers.’ The band seemed genuinely happy with the sold out crowd and the ecstatic response they were getting, they wrapped up this love fest with ‘Letter From An Occupant’ from Mass Romantic, which Carl Newman introduced as “their first song.” It was a wonderful and magical night. No one does pop music with such aplomb and sophistication as The New Pornographers. Let’s hear it for Canada!